Abzed has been working on environmental policy since 2014 and we have had several big wins for our clients.
Some issues have been simple to highlight: the scandal of filthy rivers simply requires more investment in sewerage.
But others are much more complex. Such as how to align human economic interests with the protection of endangered species. These debates are polluted by campaigners and politicians seizing on the most emotive aspects to drive donations and votes. They show no concern about the science, just how virtous they will appear on social media.
Hunting in Africa
Take trophy hunting. No animal welfare issue creates more instinctive repugnance from the public. They are appalled by images of iconic species like elephants and lions being shot by wealthy people. So when the UK government promised to ban trophy hunting imports it seemed the easiest of political wins. Especially with Shirley Bassey, Boy George, Ricky Gervais, Hugh Grant, Joanna Lumley, Cliff Richard, Ed Sheeran and Rod Stewart backing the move.
In early 2023 Abzed was asked to look at this issue. Our client’s previous advisers had said the issue was lost - a ban was bound to be passed within the year.
However, when we started researching the issue, we were surprised by how much serious support there was for trophy hunting. The EU Commission and US Government had spoken in favour of it. So too had Michael Gove, George Monbiot and the bulk of the scientific community. Their argument was that peer-reviewed search showed that endangered species fared far better where trophy hunting was allowed because it paid for anti-poaching teams. The revenue placated villagers fearful of the dangers posed by big animals. This is obvious is you live in Botswana, less so if you live in Britain where we wiped out our dangerous animals hundreds of year ago.
So we briefed The Sunday Times. It published a big comment article in favour which had an immediate impact. The next day the Daily Mail switched sides. Other papers followed. One politician told us he had “never seen such a fast turnaround in 30 years in politics.”
But winning the logical argument was not enough. We also had to win the emotional one. So we helped African supporters of hunting to explain through the UK press, how lions were “a child-killer, a slaughterer of wild stock and — in rural areas — a source of constant fear.” We also neutralised the trump card of the other side - the emotive photographs they used of hunters with their trophies. We did this through legal action because the pictures were being used without authorisation. Those using the stolen photographs included the All Party Parliamentary Group to Ban Trophy Hunting.
Our research found that this APPG was also breaking parliamentary rules. So we made a formal complaint about that to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. The breaches were so serious that he upheld our complaint.
The debate was now swinging our way and, aided by impressive lobbying by African Governments and scientists. By September enough members of the House of Lords were motivated to block the ban in the Committee Stage.
Yet despite all this, the Government and the Opposition were saying they still wanted a ban. We needed to make the issue politically toxic if we were to deter politicians from trying again.
So we organised an opinion poll in eight African countries. We asked 4,000 people their views on the issue and the UK’s involvement.
The majority described the Government’s intervention as “racist” and “neocolonial”. They also denounced the celebrities as “ignorant” and explained why the hunting was vital to the safety of people and animals. The results were reported in The Times, the Daily Mail and The Telegraph just ahead of the Government publishing its legislative plans for the year ahead. The King’s Speech made no reference to trophy hunting. From almost certain defeat to success within a year.
Some of the most dangerous animals that Britain still has are our dogs. They can be a threat to humans and livestock. How to train them is therefore a rising political issue - not least because of the vast increase in dog ownership that occurred during lockdown. And it is here that Abzed has twice been able to block poorly thought through legislation - first in 2018 and then again in 2023.
The passion behind the proposal
On Valentines Day 2018, a politically well-connected animal rights activist went on a date with an older man. Six days later, the then Foreign Secretary announced that he was campaigning for a ban on training pets with e-collars. Six days after that, the activist, then known as Carrie Symonds, told the media that the Government planned to ban e-collars. It was policy change built on passion not science. As a High Court judicial review subtly put it, there was “no evidential basis” for the policy change.
What Boris and Carrie had not factored in was how quickly Abzed could turn the tables. Within weeks we forced a U-turn. We were working for a cat charity which was desperate to preserve the e-collars used to keep pets safe in gardens.
How did we win? In part it was through revealing that one of Michael Gove’s cabinet colleagues, Chris Grayling was using the e-collars to protect cats.
We also disclosed that Andrew Lloyd Webber had an e-collar system to stop his cats getting run over. If the composer of “Cats” was convinced by them, how could they be cruel?
We were also working closely with the leader of the Common Sense group of Conservative MPs, Sir John Hayes who choreographed the Government retreat with Michael Gove. Abzed secured the win by getting the media to write about it. The coverage included this front-page story:
The second round - dogs
For more than a decade the major dog charities including the Kennel Club, Dogs Trust and the RSPCA have been lobbying hard for a ban on training dogs with e-collars. They were delighted in April 2023 when the Government tabled legislation to ban them. The chances of stopping such delegated legislation is minimal - especially when it was backed by the Opposition. It is usually nodded through in a few weeks.
What we did have on our side was thousands of furious dog owners. They considered e-collar training as the only effective way to stop their dogs attacking other animals. Without it, their dogs would be at perpetual risk of being shot by farmers or put down by vets.
Our task was to channel this anger efficiently. From a standing start we got thousands of dog owners to write to their MPs demanding meetings. We also briefed columnists in The Sunday Times and The Telegraph who wrote supportive articles. The result was uproar among Conservative MPs. Sufficient uproar for the Government to take fright and put an immediate halt to the legislation.
We win because we out-think and out-work the other side. In this case showcasing the disastrous impacts of a ban in Wales, and helping farmers’ groups to organise big co-signed letters to Government.
The most superheated of all the wildlife debates in the UK involves foxes. Everyone has an opinion and 20 years ago the UK Parliament spent 700 hours debating the issue. The result was a ban on hunting foxes with packs of dogs - a measure which remains deeply resented by those who felt it was more humane than the alternatives and was a social glue in rural communities. On the other side are the hunt saboteurs who seek to protect foxes by challenging ‘trail hunting’ which remains permitted.
Yet the controversy is set to intensify again, with the Labour Party committed to removing the trail hunting exemption when it is next in power.
So what can be done to resolve this issue? The first thing Abzed noted when asked to look into it was that all major land managers - ranging from farmers to the RSPB - agree that fox numbers need to be managed. That is because foxes are skilled predators and ‘surplus killers’ - which means they often kill far more animals than they can eat. Without foxes being culled, red-listed bird populations would be decimated.
This means that the key dispute is how that should be done. Here the surprise is that, for all the time that Parliament spent in its angry debates on the issue, there is no science comparing shooting, snaring and hunting of foxes. The Burns Report of 2000, commissioned by the Government, noted the lack of evidence, yet today there remains no research. So both the hunt enthusiasts and the saboteurs have no firm grounds for their views. The politicians are talking hot air.
We started talking to vets and found some perplexing data. Since the 2004 ban, the number of rural fox numbers has not gone up as might be expected but declined sharply. It is a trend masked by the rise in urban fox populations. One explanation is that farmers have developed a zero-tolerance approach to foxes, no longer ‘saving’ them for the hunts to pursue in the winter but shooting them all year round.
Whatever the cause, the consequences worried us. The shooting of vixens in the spring results in their cubs starving to death. Just as harrowing, is that around half the time when foxes are shot, they are merely wounded. The legal alternative to shooting is snaring. And that is also upsetting.
Yet there is no appetite from politicians to engage with the science. And so we have gone about creating a public debate. We coordinated a co-signed letter from 103 vets calling on the Government to conduct the research. The media picked up the story. As the Government has not responded, Abzed is now finding universities to conduct the research.
Life is tough for the nation’s birds. Not only are millions killed annually by our cats and dogs. Their predators also include foxes, badgers and stoats. Yet where are most endangered birds doing best? Welcome to the battle between the nation’s grouse moors and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
Our grouse moor clients are immensely proud of the numbers of curlew, lapwing and plover on their estates. And immensely angered by the RSPB’s constant denigration of their efforts which they put down to jealousy and fundraising motivations.
What does the data say? Abzed commissioned academic research from Durham and Newcastle universities. They found remarkably high levels of endangered birds living on grouse moors. But what about the RSPB reserves? Abzed revealed through the media, that the charity stopped publishing its annual bird data in 2013. Was the RSPB hiding an embarrassing secret that it was stopping its wardens protecting birds by controlling foxes? Was this the reason why the RSPB was relentlessly criticising gamekeepers?
As Europe’s biggest conservation charity, the RSPB has a big influence inside Government and the media - and has been using that influence to undermine grouse moors. That is why Abzed has been challenging its behaviour - including that of its vice-president Chris Packham.
We started by pointing out the charity’s lack of internal democracy and got the Charity Commission to force the RSPB to remove a false claim about how much donations were being spent on conservation.
Since then, a series of Abzed investigations have led to the media running stories revealing that the RSPB was:
- ignoring the dying wishes of a widow
- engaging in class warfare
- responsible for the slow deaths of deer it shoots
- using dogs to hunt down the foxes it shoots
- using captured birds to lure crows into traps
- being criticised by police for withholding evidence
- being rebuked by a judge for illegal surveillance
- being accused by scientists of “twisting data”
- demanding 5x more wind turbines despite risk to birds
- attacking gamekeepers for death of a bird later found alive
- being accused by police of only using bird crime for PR purposes
- employing 34 press officers
- allowing a new fossil fuel power station on a reserve
- facing police action for baiting electric fences with honey
And Chris Packham..
We have also successfully challenged the nemesis of gamekeepers - Chris Packham. He uses his platform as the BBC’s highest profile countryside presenter to constantly attack grouse moors. He is also a spokesman for Extinction Rebellion.
Abzed spotted that he was combining that role with taking money for endorsing ultra-long distance package holidays to places including the Falklands and Papua New Guinea.
His hypocrisy unmasked; Mr Packham promised The Telegraph that he would no longer undertake such trips.
The result for our clients has been to achieve more of a balance in this debate. No longer can opponents of grouse moors get away with not being held account themselves.
Politics on steroids: creating an electoral threat to the Conservative Party
Abzed’s reputation is for thinking out of the box. We will also go beyond expectations to defend our clients’ legitimate interests. On nature management, a recurring theme is that the Government pays far more attention to urban views of how the countryside should be run, than to those who live there. Not only is their hands on experience being ignored, but the environment department seems very reluctant to be evidence-led in policymaking. Campaigning charities with fundraising motivations are the dominant voice, not scientists.
Things have got steadily worse over the last decade. For rural voters the relationship with the Conservative Party has become like a bad marriage. Taken for granted. With so many discontent rural voters, Abzed decided that the most effective tactic for permanently empowering them is to create a political party. Rural Reaction will act as an ongoing Sword of Damocles over the Conservative Party, reminding it never again to take countryside voters for granted.
Our launch event was held in Manchester next door to the Conservative Party Conference which was opening next door. We had 240 activists attend the event and are now recruiting candidates and planning our manifesto. The main parties have little difference in their offerings on i) animal welfare, ii) the bureaucratic load on countryside interests and iii) the disfigurement of rural Britain through endless new build estates and accompanying sewage outflows. Rural communities are also disproportionately affected by higher home heating and transport costs. This neglect of rural voters is why Lord Mandelson said in June that their votes are “up for grabs”. So there is a market gap, and by filling it we intend to force policy changes from the established parties.